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This Day in Labor History: October 27, 1948

[ 25 ] October 27, 2014 |

On October 27, 1948, an air inversion trapped the pollution spewed out by U.S. Steel-owned factories in Donora, Pennsylvania. The Donora Fog killed 20 people and sickened 6000 others. This event was one of the most important toxic events in the postwar period that sparked the rise of the environmental movement and groundbreaking legislation to protect Americans from the worst impacts of industrialization.

Donora was a town dominated by U.S. Steel. Southeast of Pittsburgh, the town had both the Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel and Wire plant, both owned by U.S. Steel. The pollution throughout southwest Pennsylvania was legendary as the combination of the steel industry and the region’s hills and valleys meant incredible smoke. While Pittsburgh was nationally famous for its pollution, surrounding towns had similar problems. For the 19th and first half of the twentieth century, this pollution was seen as a sign of progress. But after World War II, with the struggles for mere survival that marked American labor history for the previous century over, workers began demanding more of their employers and government when it came to the environment.

The factories routinely released hydrogen fluoride, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine, and other poisons into the air. Nearly all the vegetation within a half mile of the Zinc Works was already dead. Donora already suffered from high rates of respiratory deaths, a fact noted at the time, which is significant because people didn’t much talk about that in 1948. The people who had to deal with these problems were the workers themselves. The companies poisoned their bodies inside the factories through toxic exposure on the job and they poisoned their bodies outside the factories through air, water, and ground pollution. Being an industrial worker in mid-twentieth century America was to be under a constant barrage of toxicity.

In Donora, people had been complaining about the air quality for decades. U.S. Steel opened the American Steel and Wire plant in 1915. By 1918, it was already paying people off for the air pollution and it faced lawsuits from residents, especially farmers, through the Great Depression. But in a climate of weak legal repercussions or regulation, this was merely a nuisance for U.S. Steel.

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Pollution in Donora (credit here)

The air inversion started on October 27 and continued until November 2. When it began, this meant that the pollution spewing from the smokestacks just sat in the valley, turning the air into a toxic stew. By October 29, the police closed the town to traffic because no one could see well enough to drive. By that time, people were getting very sick. 6000 people became ill out of a town of 13,000. Almost all of these people were workers and their families who relied upon U.S. Steel for survival. Yet that could also kill them. 800 pets also died.

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The Donora Fog. This picture was taken around noon.

The smog could easily have been worse. An assessment released in December estimated that thousands more could have died if it lasted a couple extra days. Notably, the weather inversion was region-wide (in fact, there were fogs for hundreds of miles during this larger event), but Pittsburgh, long the famed home of American smoke pollution, avoided any serious health problems like Donora because it had recently passed new ordinances against burning bituminous coal, thus lowering the pollution levels and saving its citizens’ lives. Alas, Donora had not passed such regulations.

U.S. Steel of course called the Donora Fog “an act of God,” because only a higher power could have led to a factory without pollution controls. This is standard strategy for corporations when their environmental policies kill people. The Donora Fog put U.S. Steel workers, organized with the United Steelworkers of America, into a difficult situation. Six of the seven members of the Donora city council were USWA members. And they were sick too. But what if U.S. Steel closed the factories? Even in 1948, this was already on workers’ minds. Yet they also wanted real reform. Workers did not trust federal and state regulators. The U.S. Public Health Service originally rejected any investigation of Donora, calling it an “atmospheric freak.” When investigations finally did happen a few days later, there were no air samples from the pollution event itself and the government recommended the factories reopen.

So the USWA and city council filled with its own members conducted their own investigation. CIO president Phil Murray offered the locals $10,000 to start this process. Working with a medical school professor from the University of Cincinnati, the USWA hired six housewives to conduct health effects survey to create the basis for a lawsuit. This continued pressure finally forced a government response. When the Zinc Works decided to reopen in order to “prove” that the plant could not possibly cause smog, locals pressured the Public Heath Service to make the test public. When it did, the health complaints started rolling in, with parents keeping their children home from school. Ultimately, the Public Health Service had no interest in holding U.S. Steel accountable for their subsidiary plants and the company itself wanted to avoid liability without creating a new regulatory structure that would limit emissions. U.S. Steel openly claimed they would close the plants if it had to make major reforms. And in the end, the Public Health Service report, released in October 1949, did not pin culpability on the factories.

The people of Donora sued the plants in response. The company returned to its “act of God” legal defense. The Zinc Works lawsuit paid 80 families $235,000 when it was settled, but that barely covered their legal fees. The American Steel and Wire suit was more successful, leading to a $4.6 million payout. But this was a still a pittance considering the damage done to the people of Donora by the steel industry. Yet in the end, this was an industry the town also needed to survive. U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966, leading to the long-term decline of Donora, a scenario repeated across the region as steel production moved overseas. Today, Donora’s population is less than half what it was in 1948.

The Donora Fog helped lead to laws cleaning up the air. The first meaningful air pollution legislation in the nation’s history passed Congress and was signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. 1963 saw the first Clean Air Act and 1970 the most significant Clean Air Act. Supporters of all these laws cited Donora as evidence of the need for air pollution legislation.

For decades now, anti-fluoridation nutcases have used the Donora Fog as one of their cases to prove that fluoride is the world’s greatest evil and the government is covering it up.

I drew from Lynn Page Snyder, “Revisiting Donora, Pennsylvania’s 1948 Air Pollution Disaster, in Joel Tarr, ed., Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region for this post.

This is the 122nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Himalayan Labor Exploitation

[ 64 ] October 21, 2014 |

Sherpas are poor. So they take what jobs they can get. Those jobs are carrying stuff for rich white people around the world who want to climb mountains. Serving as a beast of burden might feed these workers but it also places them in one of the most dangerous working environments in the world, especially when those who hire them want to try less trodden paths. Sherpas die all the time, but it receives only a smattering of attention compared to the deaths of climbers.

Discrimination Against Pregnant Workers

[ 41 ] October 20, 2014 |

Last year, New York City passed a law protecting pregnant workers from getting fired. Unfortunately, employers are trying to ignore it and are firing workers when they get pregnant. There is hope for those workers. For workers who get pregnant in most of the country, they can be fired with impunity. That’s discrimination and it needs to be illegal.

Title VII

[ 0 ] October 20, 2014 |

Over at LaborOnline, we are opening the pages of Labor: Studies of Working Class History of the Americas so that the public can read and discuss the forum several leading labor historians took part in on the legacy of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Please feel free to read and comment.

This Day in Labor History: October 19, 1935

[ 9 ] October 19, 2014 |

On October 19, 1935, the American Federation of Labor was holding its convention in Atlantic City. While usually a staid affair, this convention was rocked by a fight on stage between United Mine Workers of American president John L. Lewis and United Brotherhood of Carpenters president Big Bill Hutcheson. This incident and the lead-up to it helped cement the withdrawal of the UMWA from the AFL and the creation of the CIO as an industrial alternative to the AFL’s craft unionism.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters was the largest member of the AFL. It was also among the most politically conservative unions. While, like much of the AFL, technically nonpartisan in these years, Hutcheson was an active Republican and would remain so throughout his life, openly campaigning for Republican candidates against Franklin Roosevelt. His son, who took the union over upon his death in 1952, shared his political conservatism. In fact, the UBC would not endorse a Democrat for president until Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Hutcheson would become a member of America First before World War II, castigate FDR for not supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee, and oppose Harry Truman’s proposal for a national health program. He also opposed unemployment insurance. For all the criticism the old AFL gets today for its politically conservative positions, it is worth noting that even a more aggressive AFL leader would have faced enormous resistance from his constituent unions. It is a federation after all, not a single organization.

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Big Bill Hutcheson

The Carpenters were distinctly uncomfortable with not only the idea of industrial unionism but the industrial workers. The AFL gave the UBC jurisdiction over the timber industry. Loggers in the Pacific Northwest went on strike in 1935. The Great Strike finally organized the loggers who had agitated for unionism since their days as IWW members twenty years earlier. The Carpenters gained 100,000 new members. But the UBC feared the influence of a bunch of ex-Wobblies and current commies (of which there were no small number, especially in Washington although decidedly less so in Oregon). So they did not give the loggers full union rights, including the right to vote for union officials. Hutcheson already ran one of the least democratic unions in the United States and was not about to let a bunch of commie treecutters in an industry marginal to the union’s central mission undo the work he had done building his empire. The loggers seethed under Carpenters’ representation, such as it was.

John L. Lewis saw the labor movement very differently than Hutcheson. Not that Lewis was more democratic or some sort of raging leftist. Far from it. Lewis and Hutcheson had even been allies in the past, playing poker together regularly when they both lived in Indianapolis. But Lewis knew that his laborers, one of the only industrial unions in the United States, required the organizing of the nation’s other industrial laborers to create a stable union. Lewis would later personally engineer the organizing of the steel plants for this reason. Lewis and other labor leaders were also concerned that AFL president William Green’s tepid response to the Great Depression was undermining the labor movement. During the early 1930s, the AFL was losing up to 7000 members a week. Lewis demanded that Franklin Roosevelt aggressively move to pass legislation that helped workers while encouraging the AFL to give up its long-standing animus to the industrial workers that made up a huge chunk of the American labor force and engage in an organizing campaign of workers who wanted to join unions. Green and Hutcheson demurred.

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John L. Lewis campaigning for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1936.

The growing tensions between the craft unions and those who sought to organize the millions of under- and unemployed Americans demanding economic change grew through 1934, as revolts around the nation made many Americans fearful for capitalism’s future. But the AFL still largely refused to act. By the time the AFL met in Atlantic City in the fall of 1935, Hutcheson was determined to squash any industrial unionism talk. At the convention, Hutcheson was running the floor. When a rubber worker began speaking about a point of order, Hutcheson interrupted him. Lewis quickly responded. When Hutcheson called Lewis a “bastard” in response, Lewis jumped on the stage and punched him in the face. He then re-lit his cigar and calmly returned to his seat.

Some have questioned whether Lewis had planned to punch Hutcheson. I kind of doubt it but he certainly took advantage of the situation to very publicly announce to the AFL old guard that he was serious about organizing the nation’s industrial workers. Three weeks after this dramatic event, Lewis, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (AGW) formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) within the AFL. This set the stage for the withdrawal of the industrial unionists from the federation in 1937, when the CIO became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

In the timber industry this split gave the radicals the room to bolt the Carpenters and found the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) in 1937. If there’s one thing Hutcheson loved, it was a jurisdictional battle and he went full-bore against the radical loggers, using his Teamsters allies to not load IWA processed wood, among other intimidation tactics. The IWA itself was torn apart by communism, requiring the personal intervention of Lewis before the union fell apart. By 1940, the battle faded and about 2/3 of the loggers were in the IWA and 1/3 in the UBC. The bickering between these two unions would never fully end and even when the IWA could no longer sustain itself in 1987, it merged with the International Association of Machinists rather than create one union in wood.

This is the 121st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

A General Strike in Philadelphia?

[ 10 ] October 15, 2014 |

One story I was unable to talk about after my computer theft earlier this month was the Philadelphia School Reform Commission cancelling the contract with the city’s teachers unilaterally. It was a classic move by the anti-union appointees of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett and part of the reason he is on the way out.

What’s interesting is that the city’s labor leaders evidently talked about a rather extreme action in response:

Outraged by the School Reform Commission’s decision to cancel its collective bargaining agreement with Philadelphia public school teachers, city labor leaders contemplated calling for a general strike.

In two meetings, last Thursday and Sunday, labor leaders debated the wisdom of asking members of all area unions – laborers, electricians, communications workers, janitors, nurses, bus drivers, city employees – to walk off their jobs to protest the SRC’s decision.

“If there is going to be a fight, we have to fight about the future, and the kids are the future,” said Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, headquartered in Philadelphia.

They chose not to do so, for complex and I think understandable reasons:

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told the group that he wanted to exhaust legal remedies first.

And the leaders decided to await the outcome of the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election. Democratic candidate Tom Wolf has said he supports returning Philadelphia’s schools to local control. The SRC is a state board.

“After a thorough vetting, we decided to go out and get Tom Wolf elected” governor, Dougherty said.

Despite the desire of a lot of lefties to see labor take radical actions and forget the political game, I think this decision makes a lot of sense.

First, labor leaders don’t really have the power to dictate worker action for something like this. In other words, were the rank and file of these other unions willing to go on strike for teachers? If so, how long? What would a 1-day general strike have accomplished? Probably nothing. We can even ask whether labor leaders can really lead this kind of action or whether it has to come from the rank and file itself? While I tend to downplay the romanticized idea of rank and file action that so many on the left love to talk about, this is one circumstance where I think everyday workers have to lead unless the union structure itself is a real democratic voice for the workers, which it usually isn’t. So I’m not sure what the labor leaders themselves really could have done here unless their workers were also motivated, which they almost certainly weren’t.

Second, while I doubt Tom Wolf is a panacea, he’s almost certainly better than Corbett on every issue and may actually reverse this action. So here the political arena makes sense. This is publc-sector labor after all, making the electoral game vital. On the other hand, mayor Michael Nutter supports the action and will Wolf really reverse it?

I’m not a labor lawyer so I can speak less fluently about the legal remedies might fix the problem. I can say that relying on the courts to enforce labor law is a problematic situation in 2014. But still, I think it is worth asking what a general strike would have accomplished here. The answer is almost certainly not much–but who knows. Just doing so might have sparked a broader-based protest, i.e., an Occupy-type movement, that would have made it worth doing. I absolutely makes sense for labor leaders to not call for such a thing. But it’s hard to not wonder what would have happened had they gone with their first instinct.

Noncompete Clauses for Fast Food Workers?

[ 122 ] October 14, 2014 |

Even by the standards of the fast food industry, this is a gratuitous way to treat workers:

If you’re considering working at a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop, you may want to read the fine print on your job application.

A Jimmy John’s employment agreement provided to The Huffington Post includes a “non-competition” clause that’s surprising in its breadth. Noncompete agreements are typically reserved for managers or employees who could clearly exploit a business’s inside information by jumping to a competitor. But at Jimmy John’s, the agreement apparently applies to low-wage sandwich makers and delivery drivers, too.

By signing the covenant, the worker agrees not to work at one of the sandwich chain’s competitors for a period of two years following employment at Jimmy John’s. But the company’s definition of a “competitor” goes far beyond the Subways and Potbellys of the world. It encompasses any business that’s near a Jimmy John’s location and that derives a mere 10 percent of its revenue from sandwiches.

Since there are obviously no trade secrets at stake here, this is clearly just punching employees. Let’s take the one thing we have trained this low-skill, low-wage workers at and make sure she can’t use it if she leaves it at one of our equally low-skill, low-wage competitors!

The Worst Thing Ever

[ 23 ] October 14, 2014 |

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis was all geared up to run for mayor against the odious Rahm Emanuel. She had a huge lead in the polls and it could have been an amazing victory. Unfortunately, pretty much the worst thing possible has happened:

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who just pulled out of mayoral contention, is suffering from a cancerous brain tumor that was diagnosed shortly after she experienced a severe headache on Oct. 5.

As a result, Lewis underwent a five-hour surgery at Northwestern Hospital, where she is scheduled to undergo a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. The tumor had nothing to do with her weight loss surgery in Mexico.

Lewis has wanted Mayor Rahm Emanuel gone practically since he took office, but she will not be the one to unseat him in February, the head of her mayoral exploratory committee said Monday.

The feisty 61-year-old CTU leader will not run for mayor, Jay Travis, he head of her mayoral exploratory committee said in a statement Monday.

I just have no words.

Keep Cell Phones Banned on Planes

[ 200 ] October 12, 2014 |

There are several reasons to keep talking on cell phones banned on planes. Among them is that it is rude to other passengers. Those who don’t care about the passengers around them evidently don’t care how they affect other people, a sad statement. Yet even in airplane mode, having the phones on during take off and landing causes problems. For one, it can be a safety issue. Another reason is that it makes the job of flight attendants much more difficult. The flight attendants union has sued the FAA to reverse the ban of their use in airplane mode during take off. And I think that even in airplane mode, the ban does make sense when explained:

The flight attendants union, however, believes that not only was the ban removed without going through the proper channels, it also decreases airline safety. The union argued the devices could become projectiles during turbulent takeoffs and landings, and that they distract from the safety demonstration at the beginning of the flight.

George Hobica, an air travel expert, explained that the flight attendants make their strongest point when it comes to safety. “If you asked 100 fliers about the demo, where their life vest is, they wouldn’t know. When the plane landed in the Hudson, people left without their life vest—of all planes to leave without your life vest! It is bad enough when people are reading their newspapers, and it is rude for one thing, but it is also dangerous,” he said. Cell phones just make their jobs even harder.

One lawyer on the case, addressing the union’s concern that the devices can become projectiles, said it was no different than if a book began to fly around, however, Hobica is unconvinced, “It is not the same as reading books. You can read a book and not distract other passengers.”

The flight attendants are having a hard time making their case in court, however, as a judge on the case noted, the FAA is simply allowing the use of these devices during takeoff and landing as an option. They are not making a demand of the airlines.

If the flight attendants are not successful in their appeal, they will have essentially no choice but to perform a safety demonstration in front of a group of passengers who are entirely distracted and possibly talking over them. “They don’t have any legal standing, they can’t even tell people to listen to the safety demonstration,” Hobica told me, referring to FAA regulations, “They can say to put down something but they can’t enforce it.”

I know that flying is an unpleasant experience for most of us. That is not the fault of the flight attendants and treating them poorly is helping no one’s experience. Staying off the phones for 5 extra minutes really doesn’t hurt anyone.

Latinos Dying on the Job

[ 3 ] October 12, 2014 |

On the whole, American work has become significantly safer since the establishment of OSHA in 1970. There are two basic reasons for this. First, OSHA made American work safer. Second, and probably more important, most dangerous labor in the United States has either been mechanized or outsourced. This has the advantage of saving American workers’ lives. It has the disadvantage of both undermining the economic stability of the American working class and exposing people of the world’s poorer nations to working conditions that are no longer legal in the United States and should not be legal for any corporation seeking to do business in the United States.

What this means as far as workplace death numbers is that they have continued to decline with one important exception–among Latinos. Recent growing death rates among Latinos have two root causes. The first is an OSHA enforcement arm weakened by decades of corporate capture and legislative underfunding. The work that is still in the U.S. is not properly monitored. The second reason is that the remaining dangerous work in the U.S.–agriculture, natural resource extraction, and construction especially–is both hard to mechanize and heavily Latino-based.

At the same time, however, Latinos are increasingly overrepresented in the dangerous industries that remain, according to a 2013 analysis by the BLS. Take construction, which has added 636,000 jobs since the industry’s post-recession low point in January 2011. It also accounted for the largest number of fatalities in 2013, 18 percent. Latinos make up 15.6 percent of the population over 16 years old, but their representation in construction is high and growing: Nearly one in three workers in construction and natural resource extraction occupations were Latino in 2013, up from 23.7 percent in 2003.

Immigrants are especially vulnerable if they can’t read safety instructions or communicate with supervisors. OSHA has ramped up its outreach to Spanish-speakers in recent years, visiting worker centers all over the country to conduct trainings.

Sometimes, though, it’s harder to reach the smaller employers. And the number of deaths of people working for contractors has jumped just since OSHA started measuring them in 2011, from 542 in 2011 to 734 in 2013. Hispanics are overrepresented there, too, making up 28.3 percent of contractor deaths in 2013 (compared to 18 percent of total deaths).

“A lot of these smaller companies are just trying to get the job done quickly and cost-effectively, and a lot of times the worker safety is sacrificed in all of that,” says Andrew Hass, a lawyer with D.C.’s Employment Justice Center who represents many immigrant workers.

Nearly every workplace death is an avoidable death. If there are fewer industrial jobs in the U.S., that should mean more ability for OSHA to monitor the nation’s remaining dangerous worksites. But that is not the case.

Can Apparel Factories Treat Workers With Dignity?

[ 19 ] October 10, 2014 |

No industry has engaged in such a lengthy period of consistent exploitation as apparel, which has basically ran sweatshops around the world for 200 years, moving whenever workers successfully win decent conditions. The apparel industry claims such conditions are a must in order for them to profit. This is absurd on a number of levels. The system needs to be radically reformed in order to force the western apparel companies to have legally responsibility for everything that goes on in the factories where they contract clothing. If they don’t like it, they can build their own factories, like other industries. Hardly a shocking idea.

But even within the current system, is overt exploitation necessary? This experimental factory in the Dominican Republic is showing the answer to that question is no:

Maritza Vargas, a 49-year-old union leader with 25 years of experience working in local factories, works a variety of jobs at the Alta Gracia factory, including sewing seams on sweatshirts and putting on labels. A regular day at the factory is nothing like what she’s experienced before, she told HuffPost. Vargas and her 150 or so colleagues are unionized. They’re not forced to work absurd hours, her overtime paychecks don’t disappear into the ether and she gets frequent breaks.

“It’s as simple as understanding that we’re human beings, not machines,” Vargas said through a translator.

In free-trade zones of the Dominican Republic, the minimum monthly wage is set at RD $7,200, or about $165 in U.S. dollars. Alta Gracia factory workers earn a monthly wage of RD $22,342, or about $514 U.S., according to numbers provided by the company’s plant manager.

36-year-old Sobeida Fortuna, who has worked in free-trade-zone garment factories for about 18 years, said she’s finally being treated with “respect” and “dignity” after getting her job at Alta Gracia.

“They would force me to work mandatory overtime hours,” she said of previous employers. “I’d work in uncomfortable chairs and positions. They would control my every movement, even monitor the times I used the bathroom or drink water.”

Still, these people need somewhere to work. Fortuna paused to think when asked what she’d be doing if she didn’t have her Alta Gracia factory job.

“We’d maybe be unemployed,” she said. “We’d maybe be working three hours away from home. We’d maybe be working at another factory with the same conditions as the previous factories. We work in those conditions because it’s all that’s around and we have a family. We have no other choice.”

Now, I would never trust anything the apparel industry says, even if the Workers Rights Consortium is approving it. After all, this is an industry designed around taking every penny in profit through suppressing labor costs. But this is a unionized operation and while the article doesn’t get into how independent this union really is, it’s obviously a vast improvement over the average Dominican sweatshop.

Unions Shouldn’t Fund Their Enemies

[ 30 ] October 8, 2014 |

Talked about this last week, but Arkansas electing Tom Cotton is going to be horrible. So I don’t blame liberals and unions going all in for Mark Pryor, bleh as he is.

On the other hand, I do think unions should have some baseline standards before they give a politician money. For instance, should teachers’ unions give money to Pryor when he turns around and gets in bed with the union-busting charter school movement? I would argue no, but they are giving money to Pryor anyway. It’s one thing to give money to someone who is your not greatest supporter in Congress. It’s another to give it to someone who openly opposes what you stand for. I have trouble believing that’s in their members’ interest. After all, it is not unions’ job to be the only progressive organization to have to ignore their own self-interest for the broader progressive movement. It’s not as if NOW is expected to work for anti-abortion Democrats or Sierra Club is supposed to get out the vote for politicians in the pocket of the oil industry. But unions routinely go to the mat for politicians who don’t pay them back. Tom Cotton is bad but on the issue of teachers unions, Pryor is not much better and certainly not good.

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